Debbie Arrington

Seeds: The groundskeeper’s backyard secret? Fake lawn

Stu Varner knows a lot about lawns and how to make them look great. He’s worked professionally at local golf courses for decades.

Currently, he’s a groundskeeper at Haggin Oaks in Sacramento.

His own front lawn in Folsom is a flawless patch of tall fescue, deep-rooted and a little long – all the better to survive trying times with less water.

His backyard features his own fast-as-felt putting green surrounded by banks of azaleas and Japanese maples under the shade of massive redwoods.

His inspiration? Augusta National Golf Course, home of the Masters. That Georgia golf mecca is almost as famous for its azaleas and lush landscaping as for its lightning-fast greens.

“I’ve been in the golf business for 50 years,” he said. “I started as a groundskeeper, then worked in the pro shop, ran the concessions. I’ve made the full circle. I’m back to groundskeeping. The golf course is where I get many of my ideas.”

Blooming throughout April, the azaleas thrive in Varner’s private Folsom oasis. But the backyard putting green? Not so much.

“I tried re-planting sod three times, but it just refused to grow,” Varner said. “We have too much shade.”

“No matter what he did, nothing would grow,” added Kathy Varner, his wife. “We didn’t want to cut down the trees.”

So, the groundskeeper found an alternative – and the secret to his own always-perfect backyard green. He went artificial.

The Varners replaced that challenged sod with synthetic lawn. Said Stu, “No mowing, no water, and it looks great. This is a sign of the times.”

See for yourself this weekend during the Gardens of Folsom tour, hosted by the Folsom Garden Club. The Varners’ home will be one of six private gardens featured on the tour, which celebrates the club’s 80th anniversary.

“Gardening teaches you to be flexible,” said Dianna Leight of the Folsom Garden Club. “We gardeners are always learning.”

During this drought, gardeners are employing some creative solutions to keep gardening while saving water, she added. The Varners’ artificial lawn is one of those drought-minded alternatives.

Water saved from eliminating lawn can go to other plants such as the thirsty coastal redwoods, noted Varner.

“It’s a lot less work, too,” he said. “You can clean off leaves with a blower. It’s real simple to take care of.”

Said Kathy, “We’re very timely (for a garden tour) with the drought. We looked at (artificial grass) years ago, but it looked, well, fake. Just in the last few years, it’s really changed. Now, I love looking out my kitchen window. I know I’ll always see green.”

The couples’ dogs – Reggie and Murphy – love the “lawn,” too, she said. “They don’t seem to mind and (the turf) is very pet friendly; no problems. It drains really well.”

Surrounding the lawn is a private woodland, also on a low-water budget. A white gazebo nestles among Japanese maples, flowering shrubs and bright perennials. Tadpoles make the most of a rock-lined frog pond, one of several water features Stu Varner created out of local rock.

“This is all Stu; he’s the gardener,” Kathy said. “When we moved in, there was nothing but dirt.”

The Varners recently joined the Folsom Garden Club, which is going strong at age 80.

“I like the camaraderie,” he said. “Everybody shares a common interest. You get a lot of ideas.”

Said Leight, “Our garden club keeps growing by leaps and bounds. When I joined 10 years ago, we had about 25 active members. Now, we have 140. As different people come in, our network grows.”

Part of that growth mirrors Folsom’s own. Newcomers want to learn from those who have found success in their own backyards.

“You need something to help you learn,” Leight said. “The club is good for that. During the tour, we’ll have master gardeners at each garden to help explain what you’re seeing and answer questions.”

As for real grass, Varner has tips for that, too.

“Fescue lawns should be kept high,” he said, using his own front lawn as an example. “That especially helps in drought times to keep moisture in. Aeration also helps. Fescue lawns hold up better in low-water (conditions) than other grasses.

“In Folsom, we can only water twice a week,” he added, noting current water restrictions. “But our ground holds moisture well and we deep-water.

“In fact, the lawn probably looks better (than in past non-drought years).”

Real turf can get by on less water, but it still needs sun, he noted. As for the artificial turf, it’s just fine in the shade.

And water? Save it for the redwoods.

Prickly opportunity

Dr. Norm Klein has one of the best collections of cacti and succulents in California (or anywhere), growing at his Rancho Cordova home. Passers-by risk getting pricked to pose among his scores of specimens in his front yard.

He’s inviting the public to see his private collection during the Carmichael Cactus and Succulent Society’s annual visit. His garden will be open for free tours from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Thursday. Just drop by 11139 Mace River Court, Rancho Cordova.

This open garden is a warmup for the club’s annual show at the Carmichael Clubhouse May 17-18.

McKinley garden party

More than 1,200 rosebushes are in full bloom now at Sacramento’s McKinley Park Memorial Rose Garden. And they need a little help from their friends to keep looking this spectacular.

Next Saturday morning, the Friends of East Sacramento will host a morning “garden party” amid the roses on H Street near 33rd Street in McKinley Park. At 8:30 a.m., the Friends will offer a garden volunteer “appreciation breakfast” with coffee and treats; first-time volunteers are welcome. From 9 to 11 a.m., the volunteers will spruce up the garden, “dead-heading” spent blooms and other tasks to keep the roses looking their best.

Anyone interested in helping is welcome to join in the party; no rose gardening experience necessary. Bring gloves and pruning shears. Questions? Call (916) 212-4534.